Cautionary tales: Why I had to let my agency PA go after just one day
by Martin Woolley, CEO of What's Possible Group

Martin Woolley opens up about a hiring mistake he made and how he and the business have learned a valuable lesson about recruitment.

20th July 2021

This story was originally published on Mediatel News


“It’s not you, it’s me. I’m so sorry..”

Not words I expected to use at work. It genuinely felt like I was breaking up with someone. I was ashamed and sorry to do this to a lovely lady. But also certain that it had to be done.

How did I manage to get into this situation with my first ever PA – and how did I get there 24 hours after she started??

What follows is a cautionary tale about getting your hiring priorities wrong. And because there is no hire more personal than the person you will work with in a team of two, it came to a head very fast.

I was group MD at The Specialist Works several years ago and it became increasingly obvious I needed a personal assistant. I needed freeing up from lower-level tasks, was travelling much more, and, frankly, I’m not the most organised individual.

I was happy with the decision to go ahead – but this would be the first PA our business had ever hired. I was desperate not to ‘do a David Brent’ and have this perceived as a vanity hire.

So I went the other way – in spades.

I was so desperate to ensure we brought in someone with the ‘right’ skills that I created an impossible list of attributes: loads of experience; qualifications; shorthand (why?!); minute-taking courses completed… you name it.

And I found someone with all of those. She was temping at the moment, so she could start straight away. She would teach me how to get the most out of the PA/MD relationship. Everything was perfect.

As it happened, we were moving into our shiny new office the following Monday, so it was an ideal day for her to start.

I was really pleased with myself. Everyone would see what a smart hire I’d made and how good it would be for the business as a whole.

But then, as we gathered around the corner from the office, ready to walk in together for the big reveal, I looked at my new PA and a realisation hit me between the eyes. Instantly.

We weren’t right for each other. We’d never get on.

It was simply a case of chemistry. I just knew in that instant that we would never click.

It was a busy day – I couldn’t think about it much more. But, at home that night, I told my wife what I knew had to do. She gave me both barrels: how unprofessional, unkind, thoughtless, I was being. I had no defence.

But I also knew it could only get worse. I had to tell my new PA I’d made an awful decision.

And it was horrible. She couldn’t understand the problem – not surprisingly. Why hadn’t I seen this at first or second interview? Fair question.

Of course I made sure she was generously looked after, it was the least I could do.

And then I had to send the ’email of shame’ to the whole business, telling them what I had had to do.

Plenty of people told me they weren’t as surprised as I expected. They’d been able to see that the cultural fit was wrong straight away.

I’d hired dozens and dozens of people before. I prided myself on getting cultural fit right and many of those people are still with us and integral to our business.

But I’d been so desperate to get this one objectively right, I’d been obsessed with skills.

I’d forgotten culture is what you hire for. And when you hire a PA, you also have to make sure you’ve got a natural personal connection.

So, now we do ‘culture calls’ from our people team for every candidate pre-interview.

It’s a two-way thing to make sure the fit is there. And we use our handy mnemonic PICK to check for Passion, Inquisitiveness, Caring and Knowledge (in both the sense of seeking it and sharing it).

But process will only get you so far. You’ve got to remember to be human in the process and remember that whoever you hire, you’re going to be part of each other’s lives from that point (especially with your PA).

It was a bad mistake – but I’ve never forgotten to hire for culture since. That’s what I’ll be looking for when I hire my next PA!

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